Getting the rugby rush

By: Jim Linsdau, Sports Editor
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After all these years of either participating in or writing about sports, I finally got my first introduction to the game of rugby.

The Sierra Foothill Rugby Club boys varsity hosted the Granite Bay Rugby Club boys varsity last Friday at Kathy Lund Park in Rocklin. Most of us are well aware of rugby, like was I, but many like me had never really seen an actual match. It was a wonder and a treat.

Although rugby isn’t a high school sport per se, varsity club rugby involves high-school students in their junior and senior years – boys and girls divisions.

Many of the boys are football players and football is a sport rugby is often associated with, and for good reason – it involves tackling.

My first impression of the game was much like an activity I engaged in as a kid. My friends and I would gather in the backyard, form a group and toss a football into the air. The guy who caught the ball would then attempt to run through the rest of the players without being tackled.

Sierra Foothills assigned to me a gentleman by the name of Sean to explain the game as it went along. His input was invaluable.

In rugby, the ball carrier does have more than a dozen teammates but they must all stay behind him in order to receive the ball. That means the ball carrier is fair game but just being tackled doesn’t signal the end of the play – it’s the ball that is actually “fair game.”

It becomes like a game of keep-away where the offense tries to maintain possession by passing the ball backward. The defense tries to disrupt that without stepping “off sides” to gain control of the ball themselves. Play continues like that until the referee stops play and either awards a penalty or declares a scrum – or someone scores.

“I think rugby has a better technique in tackling,” said Josh Hopoi, who also plays football for Del Oro High School.

“(In rugby) you’ve got to stay on sides,” he said as to what was the biggest thing he had to learn in crossing over from football. “Once you get that done … you can catch on easy.”

Where rugby also differs from football is there is no forward pass. The ball can only be advanced by running it or kicking it. Sean said kicking is usually a last-second decision made when the ball carrier is about to be tackled deep in his team’s territory and has no one to pass back to.

The rules of rugby are such that injuries are infrequent and generally minor in spite of the fact players wear no helmets and are clad only in jerseys, shorts and cleats. No one gets blocked, blindsided or flattened trying to catch a forward pass. But there is action aplenty where play is continuous, much like soccer.

The formation is a little like football with some players packed in tight around the ball and about five or six “flankers” spaced proportionally across the “pitch” (field) and behind the ball. Once a team gets control of the ball the ball carrier takes off either looking for an opening in the defense or for a teammate to lateral off the ball.

Sean said the fastest guy on the team is usually the man at the very end of the line.

It took a while to catch on but once I did I also caught the rugby rush but I’m still learning.